North Korea is China’s problem now
June 6th, 2013
07:40 AM ET

North Korea is China’s problem now

By Paul Haenle, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Paul Haenle is the director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

Beijing has long seen itself as the arbitrator between Pyongyang and Washington in addressing North Korean nuclear proliferation. China’s priorities have been peace and stability, denuclearization, and nonproliferation, in that order. So China pushed to preserve the status quo on the Korean Peninsula.

But this is changing – North Korea is now China’s problem. This means that President Obama should take full advantage of his upcoming meeting with President Xi Jinping in California to offer help in finding a way to compel Pyongyang to alter its behavior.

Of course, U.S. officials have tried in the past to demonstrate that the regional stability Beijing desires will only be achieved with denuclearization and that China has as much – if not more – at stake in ridding North Korea of its nuclear weapons program. Unfortunately, U.S. urgings that North Korea is a common problem and that joint solutions are required have fallen on deaf ears.

This all started to change, however, when Kim Jong Un assumed power in North Korea. China put its credibility and patience on the line to help Kim consolidate power in the hope that he would embark upon a path of economic reform similar to China’s own experience. But Beijing’s vision was quickly dashed. In fact, over the last several months North Korea’s young (at 29 years-old, Kim is the world’s youngest head of state) and impetuous leader has taken a series of destabilizing and provocative actions that have brought the region to the brink of war.

More from CNN: will Kim listen to China?

In defiance of its most important friend, North Korea conducted a missile and nuclear test, annulled the agreement that ended the Korean War, closed the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex with South Korea, and North Koreans even kidnapped 16 Chinese fishermen, to name only a few provocations.

While some argue that Beijing doesn’t hold significant leverage to shape Pyongyang’s behavior, without China’s strong support at the United Nations and economic and humanitarian assistance, North Korea’s continued existence would be uncertain.

Despite this, North Korea goes against Beijing’s wishes and threatens the very stability China hopes to preserve, prompting even Chinese citizens to start to question if Kim is overplaying his hand in a way that will ultimately undermine China’s vital interests.

There are clear reasons for China to address its North Korea problem.

China’s security interests have evolved over the past three decades as the country has prospered and achieved feats of development unparalleled in modern history. Xi has spoken about an enhanced Chinese leadership role in the Asia-Pacific, but this goal will be hard to achieve if China is unable to rein in the reckless behavior of its unruly neighbor.

Efforts to boost China’s soft power and international image are undermined every time North Korea defies China’s pleas. And if North Korean nuclear and missile capabilities continue to advance, China should expect an enhanced U.S. security posture in the region – not something Beijing wants.

The combination of a young and irresponsible leader in Pyongyang and the evolution of China’s own security interests should make it clear to Chinese leaders that North Korea has become a problem for Beijing in new and troubling ways.

China is beginning to take steps in this direction through toughened public statements, the closure of North Korean accounts in Chinese banks, and a significant drop off in cross-border trade. South Korean President Park Geun-hye was also invited for a summit with Xi in late June, while the North Korean leader has not, despite apparent repeated requests. China is clearly sending the North Korean regime a message that business as usual is no longer acceptable.

This changes things. A new window for diplomacy is now opening as North Korea becomes more China’s problem than Washington’s – and Beijing has a responsibility to come up with credible diplomatic options.

The good news is that China doesn’t need to deal with its North Korea problem on its own. The United States and its allies all want a stable Korean Peninsula stripped of its nuclear-weapons capabilities, and are in a position to help. If China, the United States, Japan, and South Korea can respond in a unified manner, with one voice, it would be an important first step in changing North Korea’s behavior. But China must first signal its readiness to accept help from other powers.

This can all start when Xi and Obama meet in California. Obama should initiate discussion on the North Korea problem and work to establish the personal relationship required to enhance cooperation on the issue. The stakes are too high to let this moment pass.

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soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. Stefanie

    The West needs realize that we should not do business neither with North nor with South Korea. South Koreans are the secret prolonged arm from the Korean intelligence networks. Does the West imports from South Korea, it does import also 'wrong compass' and 'undesirable problems', that can't be solved once imported.

    June 6, 2013 at 10:51 am | Reply
    • chris516

      Stefanie, That is hogwash. The SK government in Seoul, is not a puppet of China, or the NK regime.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Reply
    • town.crier

      SK is extremely autonomous from the NK Clowns but when will hte world's policeman learn to let the gangs kill off other gangs. Our eyes in the sky at 65,000 ft are there just for this. "Leave the party if it is getting routy."

      June 7, 2013 at 5:10 am | Reply
    • IrishinToronto

      Sounds to me like the DPRK needs to teach its intelligence agents better English.

      June 10, 2013 at 8:15 am | Reply
      • Kim Jong Un

        IrishinToronto I agree, I am completely embarrassed by "Sarah's" performance.

        Sarah, we won't need your services any more. Please follow the armed guards to your "retirement" ceremony.

        December 12, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
  2. Hahahahahahah

    Look at those "high tech hand held devices" the guy on the left and the guy on the right have!!! They must be surfing the web!! Hahahahahahahahaha

    June 6, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Reply
  3. bodh

    North Korea has always been China's problem. The very survival of NK is China's interest. the act of China's trying to bring N.K on table for denuclearization is an intention to paint China's world's responsibility and soft power.

    June 7, 2013 at 12:43 am | Reply
  4. vistar hornbill

    Pes Xi's meeting with Pres Obama at Sunnylands could result in significant issues being iron out and amicably settled, One of these initiatives could be laying out the plan for an eventual reunification of the two Koreas. This matter might be a 'its now or never' initiative.

    June 7, 2013 at 3:06 am | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    China wants a stable backyard, but is wary of an unified Korea.

    June 8, 2013 at 7:21 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      So China is torn between keeping the status quo and putting up with the impetuous young Kim or teaching him a lesson, which would hurt North Korea enormously.

      June 8, 2013 at 7:22 am | Reply


    June 8, 2013 at 11:29 am | Reply

    IMAGINATION HAS NO LIMIT BY EINSTEIN,or.r_qf.&bvm=bv.47534661,d.bmk&fp=b529dd36ed484eff&biw=1920&bih=950

    June 8, 2013 at 11:31 am | Reply
  8. Bob Knippel

    Even the wannabe gansta punks in America don't have hats as big as those Korean dudes.

    June 8, 2013 at 10:29 pm | Reply
  9. vistar hornbill

    Can anyone explain to me, why you keep saying China needs North Korea as a buffer state? Excuse my ignorance, but I want to know- buffer from what? Where's the aggression coming from?

    I wish somethimes that Western jounalists would stop behaving like parrots, stop and think before they sqawk. .

    June 9, 2013 at 11:47 pm | Reply
  10. M Silvestro

    US forces are in South Korea. That's a concern of China. They should verifiably eliminate NK nuclear systems and reduce NK military in return for US agreeing to keep nuclear weapons away from peninsula and pull US troops out. But of course that will not happen.

    June 10, 2013 at 1:08 am | Reply
  11. manuel peters

    We need to have an image of not being a paper tiger. We need a leader in the White House. There are too many lawyers in our government. We need the world to believe what we say.

    June 17, 2013 at 10:46 pm | Reply
  12. John Savard

    For all we know, Kim Jong-Un could just be a puppet of the North Korean military, or some other faction that took over power once Kim Jong-Il died.

    September 3, 2013 at 9:38 am | Reply
  13. StanCalif

    North Korea IS China's problem! We, the USA, must make no mistake in making China take full responsibility! Any "leader" who executes his own kin (for whatever reason) is not one to be supported by anyone! China shies away from "political problems" to protect their own economic successes. This can't continue! China must get much more forceful with NK!

    December 12, 2013 at 10:07 pm | Reply

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